Yesterday the news came fast and furious about Paul Manafort’s plea deal, against a backdrop of a major hurricane making landfall in North Carolina.
So much was going on that it was difficult to absorb it all. What does the plea deal mean? How might it affect such people as Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and even Ivanka Trump?
One thing for sure, the decision by Manafort to cut a deal with Bob Mueller and “flip” on the president came as a huge surprise. Neither Washington’s biggest political experts nor Trump’s own attorneys saw it coming. Everybody seems to have been expecting a guilty plea but not a “flip” by the man who ran Trump’s campaign for five crucial months in 2016..
Paul Manafort can be a golden goose for Mueller’s investigation because he has firsthand knowledge of many key issues and events.
This means of course the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower which Manafort attended along with a Russian lawyer, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner.
“Bob Mueller now has an insider into the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor in D.C., who called the cooperation agreement “hugely consequential.”
But what may be most important is not what took place during this meeting. What took place before and after it may be the key to the entire Mueller probe.
Many people think that there was collusion before the meeting even took place. And many people likewise think that after the meeting the parties acted together in a conspiracy to illegally influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
In fact, some people have gone so far as to say that Trump would not have won the presidency without Russia’s help, and that help came because of the role Manafort played as a go-between and deal-maker.
All legal observers who commented after the deal was announced yesterday have said that it is highly significant, even though the exact nature of Manafort’s cooperation remains unknown. In other words, we don’t know what Manafort knows — or what Mueller knows. But we can surmise that they both know a lot, and they have the evidence that might ultimately bring down the Trump presidency.
“For months now, we have thought Mueller is one of the two or three big witnesses if Mueller could crack him, and he couldn’t,” said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney. “Now he’s cracked him like an egg.”
Even some legal experts who are sympathetic to the president acknowledged how important the Manafort news could be in the long run.
“I think from the point of view of Mueller, this is a big win, this is a big gain, because he gets access to somebody,” said law professor Alan Dershowitz on Friday. “The Manafort deal potentially opens up lots of doors that probably haven’t been opened before.”
Trump and his team are probably very afraid of what might happen next. The prevailing theory is that prosecutors would not have been willing to strike such a sweetheart deal with Manafort unless he had very useful information to offer on bigger targets than himself.
These “bigger targets” can only mean the president and his family, and that is probably where Mueller is headed now. If Mueller indicts Don Jr., Jared, and/or Ivanka, that will put pressure on the president like he has never seen before. This may be the one thing that could make Trump give up and fold his presidency like a cheap tent.
Mueller’s plea deals so far have greatly favored the criminals who pleaded guilty because the agreed-upon sentences have been very light compared to what federal sentencing guidelines would have allowed. This means that the Trump associates who have “flipped” have given Mueller what he wants — some very valuable information incriminating the president and his family.
Seasoned prosecutors like Mueller don’t hand out deals with greatly reduced sentences unless they receive a lot in return. And that is clearly what has happened here.
Donald Trump, Sarah Sanders and Rudy Giuliani have all said that Manafort’s crimes had nothing to do with Trump or his campaign. This is technically true, but it doesn’t mean that Trump and his family are off the hook. The truth is that Mueller has been gathering evidence about Trump’s crimes that he will reveal at a later date. (This could also include potential crimes committed by Don Jr. and by son-in-law Jared.)
Even though Mueller has indicted Russians for interference in the election, and has charged Manafort and others in crimes unrelated to the campaign, he has not yet said anything about collusion or whether the president obstructed justice.
But that does not mean Mueller will not eventually produce evidence of collusion, or other alleged crimes.
“It really is silly to say somehow this is evidence that exonerates the president,” said Kirschner.
No matter what Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Sanders say, Manafort’s cooperation agreement with Bob Mueller is a disaster for Team Trump. It’s only a matter of time now until the next shoe drops, and it likely to drop hard right on top of the President of the United States.
I am a lifelong Democrat with a passion for social justice and progressive issues. I have degrees in writing, economics and law from the University of Iowa.